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SUNDAY READING

Blazing Trails : Everything a Desert Tortoise Is--Calm, a Homebody, Long-Lived, Quiet--the People of the Southwest Are Not

August 10, 1986|CHARLES BOWDEN | Charles Bowden's third book, "Blue Desert," from which this is excerpted, will be published by the University of Arizona Press in October

I once knew a woman who had a pet tortoise named Fluffy, and I think of this as I listen to experts consider the plight of the desert tortoise. The experts have gathered from the universities, from the Bureau of Land Management, from the fish and game departments, from all the small offices with gray desks and steady checks.

The desert tortoise itself (Gopherus agassizii) has skipped this occasion. In the bright lights and big cities of the Sun Belt, this small reptile is no big deal. They are being wiped out in the desert, and in cities survive mainly as pets and captives (at least 20,000 in California, and thousands in Tucson and Phoenix). Once upon a time they averaged from 10 or 20 up to several hundred per square mile. But this is a new time and a new West.

I thumb through the 838-page draft report being considered by the Desert Tortoise Council. I discover that Gopherus agassizii runs 6 to 14 inches and hardly pesters anyone. They endure their slow lives for 50 to 100 years. I am briefly bewitched by the notion that somewhere out there lumber Methuselah tortoises that have seen the whole Western movie, all three reels, from Wyatt Earp to Palm Springs.

The tortoise looks to be a perfect foil for a quick hit: They are the innocents, the benign nothings who do not attack cattle, sheep or hikers, the little rascals who pack no venom. Scientists tag them as an indicator species, one that suggests the health of the ecosystem as a whole. Almost stationary in their habits, long-lived and quiet, they are witnesses to the way human beings in the Southwest treat the land and forms of life woven into the land.

Tortoises spend only three to six months a year actively feeding and moving, and even during this frisky period they devote most of their hours to snoozing. Tortoises are homebodies and spend their lives within a few hundred yards of their burrows, wandering off mainly for a little dining, basking or love making. Specimens tagged during a study in the late '30s and early '40s were found in the same area by scientists in the '80s.

The papers come one after another, and they stand in contrast to the sea of peace that constitutes normal tortoise life. People, it seems, have been wreaking havoc on tortoises for a long time (they were sold as dog food in Los Angeles during the 1890s). We shoot them for the hell of it, drive over them with cars, collapse their burrows with off-road vehicles, stomp them to death with our livestock and starve them to death by running cattle and sheep on their range--beasts that devour the forage tortoises crave.

Until the 1970s, nobody much cared. Then came all those federal laws about endangered species and all those new agency mandates demanding environmental impact statements. I take a closer look at the faces in the meeting room and realize I am sitting with the new servants of the tortoise: Hacks from the BLM who suddenly must kowtow to a damn reptile; biologists from fish and game departments who thought they would spend their days keeping tab on antelopes and bighorns, who now are here fat with statistics about tortoises and management plans for them.

I have heartily supported every law, executive order and petition to salvage the dwindling biological wealth of the earth. But now, in this room, I see what happens to every decent impulse in my society: It becomes part of that ugly thing, government.

The cities and towns of the Southwest are ugly, the populace footloose, the crime frequent, the marriages disasters, the air electric with promise. There is so much space that no one can for a single moment doubt the basic American dream that it is possible to make something worthwhile of life. Everything a desert tortoise is--calm, a homebody, long-lived, patient, quiet--the people of the Southwest are not. We don't stay in our burrows or limit our motion to the cycle of the sun.

Just across the road from where we are meeting, a huge power plant belches smoke into the sky. The facility burns coal mined in the Navajo and Hopi country of northern Arizona; the electricity generated is then flashed outward to blaze in the lights of Southern California. Such grids of energy are the stuff of life in the Southwest, and they do not produce a state of mind that cottons to the issue of endangered species.

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